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A misdiagnosis of poverty

BOOKS | The U.S. economic system is not what ails the poor

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A misdiagnosis of poverty
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Was America ever really the land of opportunity? Is it now?

In his new book, White Poverty (Liveright 2024), the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II (with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove) answers those questions with a resounding no. The American economic system, he writes, is and always has been stacked against the poor—and that very much includes the white poor.

Barber’s central claim is that wealthy Americans foment and use racial divisions to stop poor Americans of all races from uniting to change an unjust economic system that keeps them all down. The wealthy have convinced Americans, Barber writes, to think of poverty as having an exclusively black face when in reality there are a lot more poor white Americans than poor black Americans.

“One of the most damnable features of our common life,” he writes, “is the way we talk about poverty as if it’s an anomaly and not a feature of our economic system.” The American economy is uniquely bad for the poor, he writes, worse than other wealthy nations. In this telling, what poor people—white and black alike—need to do is unite behind a political agenda that emphasizes policies such as more government spending on programs for the poor and a higher minimum wage.

Barber is certainly correct that we should stop thinking about poverty in terms of race, because it’s true that more white Americans live in poverty than black Americans. And his stories of white and black Americans coming together in communities and within families are moving.

But if you turn on the news and see the lawless situation at America’s southern border, doubts will arise about Barber’s overall thesis. If the American economic system creates such uniquely bad circumstances for poor people, then it’s odd that poor people from all over the world are desperate to come here.

It turns out they’re not crazy. Some poor people in America may be languishing in poverty, but others aren’t. Barber doesn’t deal with data showing poor immigrant families are much more upwardly mobile than the American-born poor. Ran Abramitzky, an economics professor at Stanford University, and Leah Boustan, an economics professor at Princeton University, published a study in 2022 that found that poor immigrant families today move up the economic ladder just as quickly as poor immigrant families from Europe did in the 19th and 20th centuries—and are often in the middle class by the second generation. Moreover, they found that poor immigrants from all over the world outperform poor white Americans economically.

If we continue to misdiagnose the problem of poverty, we will continually fall short in solving it.

Why is that the case? Why do the immigrant poor of all races do better than today’s American-born poor of all races? These should be urgent questions for American politics, and books about poverty should ask them. Abramitzky and Boustan suggest that poor immigrants are more willing to move to where the opportunities are than poor Americans, who often feel ties to a geographic place. Conservatives argue that the American-born poor suffer from a “culture of poverty” that immigrants—who didn’t grow up in our post-1960s culture—manage to avoid.

Barber is disdainful toward conservative arguments about the culture of poverty, calling such a culture a myth and saying conservatives believe poverty “is the fault of those who are poor.” But the conservative argument is actually that the fault lies with cultural revolutionaries who weakened society’s character-forming institutions, most notably the two-parent family, and that the consequences have fallen most heavily on poor Americans, both black and white.

In any case, it’s hard to argue that the American economic system is to blame for poverty, when that system is working so well for immigrants of all races.

Barber has some good ideas about policy. He supports the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a way to address economic inequality without destroying jobs. But, ultimately, he misdiagnoses the problem of poverty—and if we continue to misdiagnose the problem, we will continually fall short in solving it.

Timothy Lamer

Tim is editor-at-large for WORLD News Group. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard.


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